by Renny Pritikin
Most exhibitions have a methodology and an agenda. Approaches can include challenging received history to offer a countervailing narrative; reviving and celebrating the work of a neglected artist or cohort; or grouping previously unassociated works to suggest affinities. Exhibitions like these make art-historical or aesthetic arguments. Others can be pointedly political, like curator Mark Johnson’s resuscitation (at this museum) of the career of Chiura Obata, an artist destroyed by the Japanese American internment, or BAMPFA’s 2003 revival of Ruth Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, photographers who documented the early days of the Black Panthers in Oakland. Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, an ambitious exhibition of 13 artists and collectives organized by Claudia Schmuckli, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, is a meticulously selected, beautifully installed set of installation works that cumulatively take on the role of Cassandra, articulating insufficiently explored ramifications of machine intelligence.
After seeing the exhibition, I awoke from a dream in a state of anxiety, echoing a theme of Uncanny Valley: my mind had been suffused in information and paranoia, yet I was not consciously aware that this had happened. In my dream, I had rented a car that, unknown to me, turned out to be self-driving. It tried to park itself in a too-narrow space, scraping the side of another vehicle. Almost all of the installations in Uncanny Valley urge us to protect ourselves from digital overreach: they intone over and over that we must pay the utmost attention to the ways artificial intelligence is surreptitiously changing the world, and by extension, our consciousness. This is taking place essentially without journalistic critique or governmental oversight, a fait accompli imposed by corporate interests often in league with authoritarian states.
In her catalog essay, Schmuckli argues that when AI’s successes in business modeling are “introduced into the social sphere, the predictive mechanisms of AI have…wreaked havoc and augmented uncertainty and instability.” This has paralleled the emergence of politically retrograde movements worldwide, and that convergence is one of the themes sounded in the exhibition. The title, Uncanny Valley, refers to the comfort level humans have with objects replicating human form, from rag dolls to zombies to robots. Our reactions, when sketched out in graph form, show a sharp negative dip—an uncanny valley– when such objects appear to be too human. Some psychologists 100 years ago felt that this was because we need to distinguish man from machine. Freud disagreed, arguing our unease was caused by realizing we are non-mechanical machines. Thus, our unease with artificial intelligence embodies the understanding that it can, to a large extent, replicate the patterns of human intelligence, much to our horror.
The exhibition begins in the lobby with Stephanie Dinkin’s video work, Conversations with Bina48, consisting of four huge monitors depicting two larger-than-life video figures in conversation, one human and one robotic, set against gleaming white backgrounds. They show Dinkins, an African American woman, and Bina, a bust-like robot based on a different, actual African American woman. While the real Dinkins moves her head in response to the robot’s, Bina delivers dense monologues that are fairly opaque. The eerie exchange points to the gap between what’s intended and what’s conveyed, reinforcing and replicating social fallacies and constructs.
Opening the exhibition proper is Zach Blas’ The Doors, a reference to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a pioneering exploration of psychedelic experience and to the rock band, whose name was taken from Huxley. The installation is emblematic of those seen throughout the exhibition: it’s streamlined, uncluttered and cold, with color used to create alien, pristine and somewhat disorienting environments. In Blas’ case, the walls are bathed in green light, forming a backdrop for six large glass screens suspended from the ceiling that show an iguana moving left to right, covered in colored glass gems. Artificial plants and turf surround a multi-leveled glass display kiosk at the center filled with bottles of medicinal products, which wall text informs us, are part of a new industry called nootropics. Its mission is to sell smart drugs, one of which is LSD delivered in microdoses. A male voice (an amalgam of voice and found sound) drones on, apparently extolling the benefits of such drugs. The artist, by suggesting that biomedical research is being used to create passive bodies for the labor pool, raises a provocative question, namely, what, exactly, does it mean to be human when technology is used to manipulate brain chemistry?
Ian Cheng’s installation, BOB, consists of two screens. One is filled with data describing different characteristics (metabolism, behaviors, favorite foods) of a cartoony artificial creature. The other, larger screen shows it leaping around in virtual underwater space, eating and dodging objects. You can influence these behaviors by going online and offering it traits, which the creature can accept or reject. The question posed: how free and how conscious — how human—is BOB?
Christopher Kulandran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman offer one the exhibition’s more dramatic works, Being Human. In this, a large rear-projection screen bisects a gallery on whose walls are stationed small abstract paintings and modernist sculptures. Periodically, the video stops, and bright white lights come on, allowing viewers to see the art for a few seconds. The fast-cut, documentary-style footage in the video shows young people riding motorbikes in Sri Lanka, dancing in clubs and articulating clear-eyed political rhetoric. A young man explains that in the decade since the end of that country’s extended civil war, the religion and culture of the vanquished Tamil minority are slowly being eradicated and that those in power — like those who control international contemporary art — are homogenizing the world. AI-created avatars of pop celebrities recite texts that ask what is innately human about Western ideas of human rights and individuality, and what separates human intelligence from AI if creativity is not the sole province of people?
I was amazed a few years ago to learn about an internet service called Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), in which thousands of workers all over the world agree to work on small jobs for modest pay on their home computers. Because it involves hundreds and possibly even thousands of anonymous workers, it can be thought of as a form of artificial AI. Agnieszka Kurant has three works in the show that explore this and other types of collective activity. One consists of six termite mounds in bold colors representing collective “crowd-sourced” work products. Animal Internet, two video feeds, shows actual animals, mostly lying around, and artificial animals whose movements are based on input from AMT workers and twitter postings. Sharing the gallery is a large white cage that approximates one that Amazon actually patented for use by its warehouse workers. (Pages of the patent document cover an entire wall.) Expanding on that idea, the artist Simon Denny provides tablets on which viewers can see a bird, created with augmented reality software, trapped inside a replica of that cage, a digital canary in a coal-mine.
The Zairja Collective shows three large collages (one in the main gallery and two others somewhat lost back in the lobby) that are among the few things in the exhibition that qualify as bonafide art objects. In these 2-D wall works, photo-derived images of neurons overlaid with spiderweb-like silvery inlaid lines suggest a correlation between open-pit mining and the structure of the human brain. Beautiful, strange and open-ended, they are the least didactic part of Uncanny Valley. The City of Broken Windows, a
meditation on urban decay by Hito Steyerl, occupies a large room in which two videos face each other. In one, an artist replaces broken windows and doorways in abandoned buildings with artistic substitutes; in the other, technicians break windows as part of a research project that trains AI-based security systems to identify the sound. Around the walls lean painted window-like objects and related text referring to different ideas about how to address urban blight.
Two installations, by Lynn Hershman Leeson and Martine Syms offer, respectively, interactive pieces and images of females addressing visitors. In Leeson’s, an actor warns of police using AI to anticipate crime in a sci-fi-like practice that has already become real. A nearby kiosk adds a chilling complement: enter your email address and a scrolling screen displays your recent online activity in real-time. Syms’ onscreen avatar, an athletic, confident being, invites you to interact by texting. Her responses motivated the museum to put up a warning about strong language: she is by no means a subservient, passive female, as is often expected in male-dominated media.
Trevor Paglen shows an enormous grid of black-and-white mugshots used to develop AI facial recognition software. He suggests that the inherent fallacies and biases involved in finding patterns among the faces of accused criminals (employed for this purpose without their consent or knowledge) constitute a preview of what’s ahead in the evolution of the surveillance state we now inhabit. Lawrence Len presents a feature-length computer-generated movie about a retired weather satellite that collaborates with a fading pop singer to fulfill its dream of becoming a musician. A screening room with low, comfortable chairs bathed in blue light shows a Pinocchio-like saga that explores the world as predicted by William Gibson in the 1988 novel Neuromancer in which artificial life forms become celebrities and the line between computer science and human aesthetics is eradicated.
Forensic Architecture is a large collaborative group whose founder, Eyal Weizman of Goldsmith’s, University of London, was recently denied entry into the United States by Trump’s immigration agents based on an algorithm. This is bitterly ironic, as Weizman and his organization are dedicated to “advanced spatial and media investigations into cases of human rights violations.” They use state-of-the-art digital tools to develop evidence for trials and for works displayed in art exhibitions and other cultural events. Triple Chaser, the work on view, is an in-depth inquiry into the manufacture of the tear gas product of the same name.
The end product is an algorithmic model that can identify cans of the stuff in video or photographs of large groups of people—whether soldiers or protestors. We are shown video footage of the gas being used on people, as well as a wall-length array of digitally made images of used containers. The fact that these activist media artists have recently been victims of the same algorithmic oppression they investigate justifies the urgency of exhibitions like Uncanny Valley.
Criticality is a term widely used in the art world. It refers to the notion that contemporary art should strive to reveal political reality and the role that art and media play in resisting or reinforcing those conditions. For the 13 artists and activists whose works comprise Uncanny Valley, aesthetic production is not an end in itself, but a tool to confront complacency and the hidden psychological manipulation by corporate and government malefactors.
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“Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI” @ de Young Museum through October 25, 2020.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. He is working on a memoir of his experiences in the arts from 1979 to 2018.